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December 5, 2022
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Presidential blog: reflections on our Annual Conference

Directors of public health: the fabric from which the future of public health is woven.


Last week, I had the great pleasure of opening the first face to face ADPH annual conference since 2019.

Given we are celebrating the 175th anniversary of the first Medical Officer of Health this year, the occasion was especially poignant. After all, the fact that we were able to come together in one room was thanks, in no small part, to the innovative and agile practice of directors of public health (and their equivalents) around the world working with so many partners, helping to get Covid-19 under at least some sort of control.

The pandemic undoubtedly pushed DsPH into the spotlight like never before and we should rightly be proud of our contribution over the last three years. Its shadow still looms large and, over the past year, we have been seeking to widen our gaze and harness the power of the voice Covid-19 has given us to advocate for the whole range of public health issues our communities face – both behind the scenes and, when appropriate, in front of the camera.

In particular, we are in a better position than ever before to highlight the deep inequalities that exist in our communities and across the UK. Inequalities that were evident to Dr Duncan 175 years ago, were brought to the fore during Covid-19 and sadly are a significant factor in all public health issues.

It has obviously been a turbulent time – not just due to the effects of the pandemic, but thanks too to the changes in Government the country has faced throughout this past year when positions and priorities have seemingly changed with each new appointment. That’s all the more reason for us to remain rooted in what we know, being firm in taking an evidence based approach and the values that come from that and in representing the professional views and experiences of members.

Our history shows us that this tried and tested approach is important to stick to in challenging times and means that when we call for policy, practice and system changes, we are coming from a clear core of evidence and values. This is especially important when arguing for holistic policy solutions to improve health disparities that, without intervention, will continue to pass down through the generations. The fact that health inequalities cannot be addressed by funding healthcare alone is quite clear from local practice, and needs to be reflected in national policy too.

This work will clearly be ongoing and it is my belief that as our reach continues to widen, our work to improve practice, influence policy and improve people’s health will also reach further. That work needs to be informed by the voice, settled professional judgement and expertise of our members.

The conference theme was ‘Working with Business: the good, the bad and the ugly’ – a theme not only of the moment, but also inextricably linked with health outcomes. There are record numbers of people unemployed as a result of sickness and it is vital, not just for those people as individuals, but for society as a whole for us to radically rethink how we live and work.

By improving workforce health, the positive knock on effect to the local community – and nationally – will be felt for generations to come, making health and wellbeing the expected societal norm and helping UK grow economically.

It is now our job therefore to articulate the strong evidence that shows good health, good work and a good economy are mutually interdependent, and advocate for that to be turned into good policy.

Throughout the day, we heard from a range of excellent and engaging speakers about the commercial determinants of health and the role business has to play in promoting public health – as employers, investors, contractors and influencers. In between sessions, our members – all public health professionals – were able to share successes and debate ideas, ask questions and test theories and we all came away with a renewed sense of purpose and intent: health must be at the heart of all policy, and must be practiced to a consistently high level across all sectors for us – and the country – to thrive.

The conference also saw our first ever ADPH award ceremony, celebrating some of the amazing work DsPH and their teams have done over the last few years. Of course, everyone nominated deserved to win, and my hope is that hearing stories and examples from different regions has given all our members an opportunity to take a moment and remember just how important their work is.

It is a huge privilege to represent my profession as President of ADPH and this year’s 175th anniversary has been particularly special. It has given us even more reason to take stock of and celebrate all the profession has achieved, and build on this for the future.

Our work as local leaders for public health could be described as being the glue for when things become unstuck. Ultimately, it is based on the same principles as in 1847, those of partnership, collaboration and practicality. Sadly, we often find ourselves dealing with the same fundamental issues but, we are making a difference and, as a result, are helping people live longer, healthier lives.

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